[24 August 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I can’t work in an office. I don’t like suits.” And so, instead, Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a bike courier. In Manhattan, devoted to working with “no brakes, no gears.” His fellow couriers admire and worry about him. “The way he rides,” says Manny (Wolé Parks), “He’s got a death wish.” Wilee claims has to do with purity and skills and freedom, but his sometime girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) wants him to get a real job, maybe even take the bar exam he didn’t take when he left Columbia Law. Or at least add a brake.
So you can appreciate the risks Wilee (see: Coyote) takes, Premium Rush offers plenty of views approximating his—or that of the stunt rider on whose handlebars the camera is mounted. These views zip you through moving traffic, leap over fences and stairways, and even pause, so that you can watch Wilee as he makes an instantaneous plan. So, much like Robert Downey’s Sherlock Holmes, he gazes into the camera, his eyes narrowing, as the scene cuts to a series of possible scenarios—cars screeching, baby strollers popping up, car doors opening—essentially, the daily perils of biking in NYC. He opts for a correct choice, or at least the choice resulting in the least damage.
This concept drives Premium Rush, that what makes Wilee a special rider is his ability to see in this movie-tech-determined way, at once slowed down and zapped up, freeze-framed and pushed into trajectories borrowed from Google maps. It’s not quite video-gamey, more cell-phoney, which makes sense, given that Wilee and his fellows use their phones for everything, from GPS and photos of offending cars’ license plates to getting assignments and making dates. Fundamentally a technology to make all events manageable in your hand, the mobile device isn’t obviously a great option for a movie screen, but we might imagine, a few steps from the opening date, the film available on teeny screens in high school students’ palms.
This concept is also not obviously a plot, and Premium Rush struggles a bit to conjure one: Wilee picks up a package from a regular customer, a friend at Columbia, Nima (Jamie Chung), the delivery somewhere in Chinatown, depicted here as it is in pretty much every movie, full of intrigue and business and noise. Nima goes so far as to meet with a mysterious Mr. Leung (Henry O), who in turn sets her up with the mysterious Sister Chen (Wai Ching Ho), all by way of making her story—and Wilee’s assignment—seem mysterious.
That is, until the film explains everything in flashbacks. These attach to individual players but also bring together everyone’s plotlines, sometimes cleverly, as when someone yells at Wilee off screen in Nima’s flashback, and sometimes ponderously, as when Detective Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), the very bad cop who’s trying to intercept the delivery, stomps through different scenes in the same way, bellowing and twitching and demonstrating his very-badness. His own flashback shows Monday in a secret mahjong parlor, where he’s losing money and his eyes are popping wide. His debts lead directly to his movie-long efforts to chase down Nima’s package all over the city, as Wilee carries it.
The film’s cartoony dynamic actually posits Wilee as the Looney Tunesy Road Runner, avoiding the many traps laid by Monday. Spastic and sputtering, Monday is less a threat than a plot point, prone to violence (even to inadvertent murder) and a rather remarkable lack of foresight. “You’ve got a knack for making it worse,” a fellow criminal advises, while Monday makes faces on the other end of their phone line. While the film assumes an opposition between pursuer and pursue, Monday and Wilee’s attitudes aren’t so different, each being headstrong, freewheeling, and sure he’s right. They diverge in affect: Monday is lumbering and manifestly cruel, where Wilee is nimble and cute, with an appealing moral code, in the sense that he wants to help Nima and not, you know, steal from her.
Wilee’s agility and acuity, as well as his milieu, allow for a blandly trendy look, a pile-on of handheld frames, fast cuts, and fast pans that suggest he’s thinking quickly even as you’re always multiple steps ahead of his and everyone else’s action. It’s a standard problem for this sort of product, devised for a demo, audience-pretested, and nebulously titled (Premium Rush? what does that even mean?), a product pitched on kids’ TV and approximating a roller coaster ride on a screen (at least it’s not 3D). The nonplot at its center is decorated with an assortment of non-issues, like Wilee and Vanessa’s romance, Nima’s immigrant backstory, Manny’s self-love (challenging Wilee to a race, he asks, “Did you see my thighs!?”), and cutaways to the dispatching office, where the couriers’ boss Raj (Aasif Mandvi) makes fun of his aging messenger Tito (the great Anthony Chisholm, reduced here to rolling his eyes or shrugging his shoulders on cue) and barks orders at his super-fit team, which includes two riders named Marco and Polo, because the movie thinks it’s that cute.
The team, along with all the other riders at other agencies in the city, all bow down to Wilee, who uses every chance he can to espouse their riders’ creed. This has to do with not waiting tables and peddling like maniacs and getting dinner out of vending machines, in other words, a call to rebellion. The movie might be making something of a case for collective action when Wilee (via Raj, meaning, using the company’s communications infrastructure) calls for a “flash mob.” By this he means, apparently, an assembly of lots of riders who ride by and push and shove Monday while he complains, loudly. If it’s not exactly the triumph of the working class, it’s a good showcase for bicycle couriers’ gear.